Moscow says American drone downing highlights increasing intelligence gathering off the annexed Crimea peninsula.
Intensified spying by American drones near Ukraine could lead to an escalation and Russia will respond proportionally to future intelligence-gathering operations, Moscow’s defence chief has told his US counterpart.
The comments came in a phone conversation on Wednesday between Sergei Shoigu and Pentagon boss Lloyd Austin after the United States accused a Russian Su-27 fighter jet of colliding with one of its Reaper surveillance drones, forcing it to crash into the Black Sea.
Russia denied it deliberately brought the unmanned aerial vehicle down.
“It was noted that flights by American strategic lethal drones by the Crimea coastline were provocative in nature and created pre-conditions for an escalation of the situation in the Black Sea zone,” a defence ministry statement quoted Shoigu as saying.
“[Russia] has no interest in such a development, but it will continue to respond proportionately to all provocations.”
It was the first such military incident between Moscow and Washington since President Vladimir Putin sent troops to Ukraine in February 2022.
Shoigu noted “increased intelligence activities against the interests of the Russian Federation” and “non-compliance with the restricted flight zone” declared by Moscow after its campaign in Ukraine had led to the incident, the ministry said.
It was the first call between Austin and Shoigu since October, and General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had a similar call with his Russian counterpart General Valery Gerasimov.
“We take any potential for escalation very seriously. And that’s why I believe it’s important to keep the lines of communication open,” Austin said at a Pentagon press briefing. “I think it’s really key that we’re able to pick up the phone and engage each other. And I think that that will help to prevent miscalculation going forward.”
The US military said it ditched the Air Force MQ-9 Reaper in the sea after a Russian fighter jet allegedly poured fuel on the surveillance drone and then struck its propeller while it was flying in international airspace. It said it was working on declassifying surveillance footage from the drone that would show Tuesday’s crash.
That the top US and Russian defence and military leaders were talking so soon after the incident underscored the seriousness of the encounter over the Black Sea, and that both sides recognised the need to tamp down the risks of escalation.
‘Very serious risks’
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, contact between American and Russian military leaders has been limited with Russian officials refusing to take US military calls in the early months of the war.
Austin and Milley said the incident would not stop the US from flying wherever international law allows.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters earlier that Russia declared certain areas of the Black Sea off-limits to any aerial traffic during the Ukraine conflict and suggested the US was trying to provoke an escalation through the surveillance flights.
The drone crashed near Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014 and illegally annexed.
“Any incidents that could provoke confrontation between the two great powers – the two largest nuclear powers – raise very serious risks,” Lavrov said.